At Large

Nature’s nightmares

/ 12:37 AM November 06, 2013

What Ishmael Narag of Phivolcs and Dr. Mahar Lagmay of Project NOAH have to say is far from entertaining but certainly enlightening, fear-inducing but fascinating.

In the wake of the Bohol-Cebu earthquake and the impending arrival of yet another “supertyphoon” (by Friday), the two certainly had the audience’s attention at Tuesday’s Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel. People were by turns curious, intrigued, alarmed and panicky. But everyone’s attention was riveted, and questions flew thick and fast, so much so that everyone had to be reminded to let the speakers continue lest the session be extended well into the afternoon.


A realization: We live in a volatile planet, subject to the vagaries of weather, the movement of the earth, the rise and fall of tides. Another, bigger realization: The Philippines sits on one of the most vulnerable, dangerous pieces of real estate in the world, in recent years racking up record amounts of weather disturbances, rainfall, landslides, mudslides, rock slides, temblors and volcanic activity.

The toll in lives lost and interrupted by injuries and dislocation, the economic costs—all these may be quantifiable—but the resulting trauma to the national psyche is unfathomable. Would that we could transfer this “title” to other countries, other peoples. But geography is destiny, it seems. It’s not as if rain, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions are novel events for Filipinos. They have been occurring long before written records and folk narratives documented them. In fact, as Phivolcs’ Narag observes: “If we have indigenous terms for storms, earthquakes and other natural calamities, we also have native words for preparedness and staying alert.”


* * *

A mathematician who does, among other things, “modeling” on the odds of earthquakes or volcanic eruptions occurring, or tracking possible scenarios for such disasters, Narag takes a long, historic view of the Filipino experience with earthquakes.

The earliest chronicle of an earthquake in the Philippines, he says, was in 1589, and after another reported earthquake in 1645, Spanish authorities “refused to invest any more in the Philippines.” But the missionaries convinced the civil authorities that adopting more durable building models would minimize deaths and injuries. In fact, Narag points out, a unique architectural style dubbed “earthquake baroque” emerged from these studies, as exemplified by the squat, buttressed churches of Ilocos.

(But these intrepid church builders did not reckon with a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, such as that originating in Bohol last month, which felled many heritage churches, all built with adobe blocks held together by mortar fashioned from, among other materials, egg whites.)

A “similar event” to the Bohol temblor taking place in Metro Manila, says Narag, “is not a question of if, but of when.” By the calculations of experts, the metropolis has been long overdue for a similar catastrophe. A foreign-funded study, adds the Phivolcs official, estimates the casualties as a result of a 7.2-magnitude earthquake at “35,000 dead and 120,000 injured.”

These figures are based, he says, on a study conducted in 2004 using a population census for 2000. The implication, of course, is that should a disaster of the magnitude of the Bohol temblor take place in the near future, the numbers of dead, injured and homeless will be greater.

* * *


Although there is little we puny humans can do in the face of destructive natural phenomena, we can prepare for such eventualities and act now to prevent the toll on human life and damage from escalating.

In part, says Lagmay, this is what underpins the logic behind Project NOAH, which stands for “Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards.” Although its name suggests preparations for record rains and the resulting floods, Project NOAH, says Lagmay, covers seven main concerns, including the mapping of areas at risk, the identification of vulnerable sites, the installment of Doppler radars and gauges and even satellites to make weather prediction more accurate and timely, and communicating information to the public in a timely and accurate manner that induces populations to heed warnings and take the necessary risk-reduction actions.

With a staff of 150 scientists (including one anthropologist), Project NOAH seeks to break hundreds of years of fatalism that teach that once a disaster strikes or threatens, there is “nothing we can do.” Instead, they hope, through the use of technology, to instill in Filipinos an attitude of alertness to any impending natural disaster, and readiness to act and cooperate to minimize the loss of lives and property.

* * *

The formula, Lagmay says, lies in “sharing information and timely intervention,” from local and national government officials, if need be, should people prove resistant to the measures they need to keep safe and sound, alive and alert.

During the Halloween weekend, there was a slew of shows and documentaries on what “ordinary” folk should do in the case of a “zombie invasion.” I found it funny that in other parts of the world, people are scaring themselves silly imagining the threat of as-yet-unproven creatures.

Whereas in the Philippines, we face daily threats in the form of purely natural, and all-too-familiar, phenomena like rains, monsoons, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the further damage wrought by human carelessness and greed.

We don’t need to imagine monsters or zombies. We live with fear and loathing every day, with events that no longer occur in seasonal patterns and in predictable periods. In the Philippines, nature itself is enough to give us nightmares.

Click here for more weather related news.

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TAGS: column, disasters, nature, Rina Jimenez-David, weather
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